By: Prakash Karat
IN the annals of the communist movement of India, Harkishan Singh Surjeet will have a prominent place as one of the pioneering builders of the Communist Party, as a leader of the peasant movement and as the one who steered the CPI(M) to play a prominent role in national politics.
Comrade Surjeet belonged to that generation of communists who emerged from the fire of the anti-imperialist struggle. Like EMS Namboodiripad, P Sundarayya, A K Gopalan and other leaders of his generation, he was simultaneously in the Congress, the Congress Socialist Party and the Communist Party. Like them, he concentrated his work on the peasantry to mobilise them in the anti-feudal and anti-imperialist struggle. Throughout his life, Comrade Surjeet retained his association with the peasant movement. He led militant struggles of the peasantry against feudal landlords in the princely state of Pepsu and later the militant anti-betterment levy struggle in 1959.
He was one of the builders of the Party in the undivided Punjab and the Communist Party became a big force there. Unfortunately, the partition of Punjab aroused such communal passions and the resultant massacres and exchange of populations setback the movement.
It is this bitter experience which made Surjeet acutely aware of the grave danger that communalism poses for the working class movement. From this stemmed his continuous endeavour to isolate the communal forces particularly the RSS-BJP combine. Just as he fought Hindu majority communalism, he fearlessly opposed Sikh fundamentalism and the Khalistani terrorism in the 1980s. He was one of the prime targets of the extremists but he did not flinch in opposing them in all possible ways.
Harkishan Singh Surjeet was a prime example of how a person of modest peasant origin with little formal education became an outstanding leader of the proletarian movement. This was due to the fact that he was imbued with the scientific ideology of Marxism. He spent his years in jail studying Marxism and world developments. As his political evolution as a communist was rooted in the anti-imperialist nationalist movement, he was able to perceive the sectarian mistakes committed by the Communist Party in 1942 and 1948. He always strove to make the Party inherit the legacy of the anti-imperialist national movement which was betrayed time and again by the bourgeois-landlord classes.
Harkishan Singh Surjeet became the general secretary of the Party at the 14th Congress in 1992 at a time when the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Under his leadership, the Party formulated a political-ideological position which defended the basic principles of Marxism-Leninism while pinpointing the distortions and mistakes in the realm of theory and practice in the Soviet Union and in our own understanding. In the years 1987 to 1991, when the CPSU deviated more and more from Marxism and adopted policies harmful for socialism, the CPI(M) sharply criticised the CPSU leadership and the serious distortions in the socialist set up in Eastern Europe. Surjeet with his deep understanding of the international communist movement played an important role in the evolution of the Party understanding. He was the foremost exponent of the view that the CPI(M) should creatively apply Marxism-Leninism to Indian conditions and not mechanically copy the model of other countries.
As general secretary, he steered the Party's efforts to reorient to the new situation where the international correlation of class forces had changed. It is a testimony to his leadership that the CPI(M) emerged relatively unscathed from the setbacks to socialism. The CPI(M) adopted its Updated Programme in 2000 which equipped the Party to meet new situations and challenges. Harkishan Singh Surjeet was the chairman of the Programme Commission which prepared the draft of the Updated Programme.
Comrade Surjeet's role was much wider than that of a leader of the Party. His impact was felt at the national level. As general secretary of the Party, he was placed in a position where the Party's tactical line of keeping the BJP at bay had to be translated into action. It was due to his tireless efforts that the non-Congress secular parties could be brought together to form the United Front government in 1996. Earlier, he played a key role in the V P Singh National Front government being formed in 1989. If there was one national leader whose views were heard with respect by all the secular forces in the dark period after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, it was that of Comrade Surjeet's. The country owes him a big debt for keeping the flag of secularism flying in the face of the onslaught of the Hindutva forces.
The bourgeois media has always sought to portray Surjeet as some sort of modern day Chanakya. By this they imply that he was a crafty politician devoid of any principles. There can be nothing further from the truth. The fact is Surjeet was the most skilled in implementing the political-tactical line of the Party. He was a master tactician in creating the opportunities and exploring the avenues by which the Party's tactical line would be advanced. In doing so, Surjeet did not lose sight of the tactical goals set out by the Polit Bureau or the Central Committee. This skill was seen in the period when the Left sought to build an anti-Congress unity without compromising with the BJP in the period between 1987 and 1991 and later when a unity of secular parties had to be built against the BJP and the communal danger without allying with the Congress. If the idea of a third force in Indian politics against the Congress and the BJP emerged as a possibility in the late 1980s and efforts were made to translate it into a viable proposition, much of the credit for this goes to the tireless and skillful endeavours of Surjeet.
Comrade Surjeet was reared in the tradition of proletarian internationalism. No other leader of the CPI(M) did so much for developing relations with the Communist Parties and progressive forces around the world. His firm commitment to fight imperialism and defend socialism never wavered even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. When Cuba went through serious economic crisis after the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the East European socialist regimes, Comrade Surjeet organised the biggest solidarity aid ever mobilised by the Party for Cuba. He planned to send a shipload of wheat to Cuba. Most of us were skeptical that such a huge amount of grain could be collected, but Comrade Surjeet had no doubts and single-mindedly organised collection of 10,000 tonnes of wheat. The total shipment cost Rs 5 crore. He was in Havana along with Fidel Castro when the ship with the foodgrains was received. This was a fine example of his commitment to defend the socialist system.
At the personal level, I first met Comrade Surjeet in 1970 when I reached Delhi to work with AKG in the parliament office. Though the Central Committee office at that time was in Calcutta, Comrade Surjeet worked from Delhi as his responsibilities included keeping in touch with the various political parties and international work. From 1985, when I joined the Party Centre, I have worked closely with Comrade Surjeet, as a Central Committee member, as a member of the Central Secretariat and later in the Polit Bureau. I learnt a lot from his wide ranging experience. When he felt our views were not correct, he would try patiently to correct the wrong notions and would help us come to correct positions.
I have not seen another person who could work so tirelessly and with such an amazing capacity for hard work. Even at the age of 85, he would have a punishing schedule which comrades much younger than him would find difficult to maintain.
Punjab produced some of the greatest and most courageous revolutionaries - the Ghadar heroes who were executed by the British, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru who were hanged by the British and the innumerable martyrs of the freedom struggle. Harkishan Singh Surjeet was fully imbued with these values. It was the good fortune of the Party to have produced such a leader who, in turn, gave so much for the cause of the Party. Now that he has gone, we can only take inspiration from his great example.